Keeping Hope Alive: Sermons and Speeches of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. (Grace Ji-Sun Kim, editor) -- A Review

KEEPING HOPE ALIVE: Sermons and Speeches of Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. Edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Foreword by Rev. Otis Moss Jr. Afterword by Eddie S. Glaude Jr. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2020. Xxviii + 212 pages.

                Jesse Jackson has been at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement for five decades. He was there in Memphis, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. He would go on to run for President twice during the 1980s. In the midst of all of this, he sought to bring together a Rainbow Coalition. While he started his career as a young aide to Martin Luther King Jr., today he is a senior statesman within the Civil Rights community and beyond. Throughout the years his work and message have been rooted in his Christian faith. Like many civil rights leaders in the early days of the movement as well as today, Jackson is a minister, as well as activist, who has made forays into the political realm. But who is he and what is his message? These are questions that Keeping Hope Alive, which was edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim seeks to answer.

The collection of sermons and speeches has been gathered together and made available to the public through the efforts of Grace Kim, who is a theologian teaching at Earlham School of Religion in Indiana. A Korean American scholar, Kim has made intersectional theology a major focus of her scholarly efforts, and this book is an expression of that focus. Kim provides both an introduction to the book and a biography. In her introduction, she notes that when it comes to Jackson’s speeches and sermons it’s difficult to distinguish between them because “he views Jesus as God’s uniquely gifted son who did not separate the spiritual from the economic and political world. Therefore, politics and religions are always intertwined in all his work” (p. xvii). Kim gives us a sense of how these work together in sermons and speeches given through the years. Then she offers a brief biography of Jackson’s life. It’s a brief statement, just a few pages in length, but it takes us deeper into Jackson’s life story. Even though I have known of him for my entire adult life, and I’ve heard him speak on different occasions, this was insightful and welcomed. It is worth remembering that in 1984 he earned 3.5 million votes in that year’s presidential primary. Then in 1988 he garnered more than seven million votes and placed either first or second in forty-six out of fifty-six contests.

Besides Kim’s introduction and biography, she brought in the Rev. Otis Moss Jr., a compatriot of Jackson’s in the civil rights movement dating back to the 1960s to write the foreword to the book. Moss says of this collection that we will find “a consistent and powerful message of hope, justice, equality, liberation, equity, human rights, and civil rights” (p. xv). The book concludes with an afterword by Eddie Glaude Jr., who is the chair of the African American Studies department at Princeton (and a regular contributor to Morning Joe, which I watch regularly). Glaude suggests that Jackson’s words and actions have “blazed a path for us today” (p. 199). Thus, they are worthy of our attention.

The core of the book is comprised of six sermons, which were preached between 2003 and 2013. Kim notes that Jackson rarely used a manuscript and most of his sermons were not recorded, so very few of his many sermons preached through the years are extant. Thus, there isn’t a lot to work with when it comes to reprinting his sermons. Nevertheless, these sermons preached relatively late in his career give us a sense of Jackson's theology, as well his passions as a preacher and as a Christian, as well his style as a preacher. Each of the sermons is punctuated by his commitment to social justice, especially racial justice. Of course, no printed sermon can do justice to the full power of a sermon. That goes for most preachers, including myself, but that is especially true of those who have a prophetic calling. So, we may miss some of the nuances of the sermons, but we get a sense of his message.

In addition to the six sermons, there are nineteen speeches. As Kim notes, these speeches are themselves sermons of a sort. While they may have been spoken at a political convention or a rally, Jackson’s faith is central to the message. Of great interest will be the convention speeches given in 1984 and 1988. In the first of these speeches, titled “Rainbow Nation,” he notes that while the Democratic Party was not perfect, nor were they perfect people, he suggested they were called to a “perfect mission.” That mission was “to feed the hungry; to clothe the naked; to house the homeless; to teach the illiterate; to provide jobs for the jobless; and to choose the human race over the nuclear race” (p. 53). You can hear the echoes of Jesus’ words in his speech. He didn’t get the nomination, but he gave voice to a central vision for the party. The speech given in 1988 is titled “Common Ground.” It is in that speech the title of the book originates, for his penultimate declaration was “Keep Hope alive. Keep Hope alive! Keep hope alive! On tomorrow night and beyond, keep hope alive!” (p. 78). These political speeches defined his vision for the nation in ways that continue to speak. They outline an inclusive and expansive vision of a society where everyone, black and white, Asian and Latinx, gay and straight, old and young, male and female are included equally in the coalition. The collection includes speeches honoring Dr. King and Nelson Mandela. In fact, these two men stand at the center of Jackson’s vision of the common good. There is, as one expects, overlap from speech to speech, for the emphases remain present even when the context changes. He wishes to build a coalition that would bring justice to all, thus, keeping hope alive.

Jesse Jackson has had a long and distinguished career as a civil rights leader, activist. He may not be at the center of the fight today, but he remains an important figure in the ongoing fight for justice and equality and inclusion in the United States and beyond. This book is a testament to his witness, and thus it is a worthy contribution to the ongoing conversation about racial justice and the common good. Thanks go to the editor, Grace Kim, for bringing this project together. And as for Jesse Jackson, in his acknowledgments, he offers thanks to those who joined him as he “tried to carry on the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and fulfill the assignment he gave me: ‘Keep hope alive’” (p. xii). May that dream be passed on to we who read this collection.  


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